Dev Notes 9 - What is a Roleplaying Game?

Thanks to Enworld forum user Evenglare for reminding everyone of this XKCD comic.

Because our last pair of Dev Notes weren't sufficiently controversial, I thought I'd tackle one of the most contentious and frenzy-inducing questions within the gamer community: "What is a roleplaying game?" This is a question that really does not seem to have a right answer, but it definitely has plenty of wrong answers. Just try to assert your opinion on this topic in any RPG-related forum and you had better be wearing your fireproof pants. In classic internet parlance, it's flamebait. Nevertheless, I believe it is time we address it.

And no, I am not going to pull my punches by presenting a bunch of theories and telling you to make up your own mind. I actually do have an answer. But don't skip ahead, because I also think I have some useful thinking that has led me to that answer.

Recently as I was listening to various podcasts and reading various forum posts that make fairly narrow assertions in answering this question, I remembered a conversation I had many years ago in college with one of my long-time friends. She was a Radio/TV/Film student and I was a Theatre student, and we were talking about why we liked different movies. We are both fairly intellectual people with good artistic sense, yet there were some aspects of film criticism where we just could not agree. In that conversation, she asked a very insightful question, even more so than I realized at the time (and at that time I thought it was pretty insightful). She asked me, "What other form of art do you consider to be most similar to film?"

Not art

To be clear, not all film is art. Just trust me on this.

After consideration, I said that I thought film was most like writing or storytelling. She nodded and told me that she felt it was most like painting or other visual arts. Suddenly all of our differences were explained - I was watching movies primarily for plot construction and character development and dialogue, while she was watching them primarily for imagery and composition and other visual elements. We both enjoyed all the other pieces that go into movies and could certainly appreciate quality in those areas, but they weren't necessarily what we were looking for.

Which brings us now to roleplaying games, and my initial answer to the topic question. It goes like this:

"A roleplaying game is an interactive, participatory artistic experience, similar to                      ."

Let's break that down.

  1. A roleplaying game is interactive in that it requires input and feedback.
  2. A roleplaying game is participatory in that the "audience" is involved in the act of creation. (Many people bandy about the term "collaborative," but that sometimes becomes a sticking point as some people see certain roleplaying experiences as insufficiently collaborative. "Participatory" covers all levels of player involvement.)
  3. A roleplaying game is an artistic experience. Yes it is. I am firm in this assertion. It is an act of imaginative creation of a non-practical aesthetic product. It's an art. Deal with it.
  4. A roleplaying game is similar to                      . The blank is there on purpose. What goes in it? Well, here's where it gets tricky...

Yes, that tricky.

You see, as in the question posed to me, the art that you think is most similar to a roleplaying game becomes a lens through which you view your own experiences. Do you think roleplaying is like writing? Then you will prefer aspects of roleplaying that favor the narrative flow and the construction of a story. Do you think roleplaying is like painting? Then you will prefer tools that engage the visual aesthetics of gaming. Do you see it as a piece of music, where everyone has to work together in a coordinated fashion? Or do you perhaps view roleplaying like a martial art, where the creativity comes out through the competitive application of strategy and skill? There are many other possibilities for filling that blank, and that's part of the reason it needs to remain blank in the definition.

All of these lenses are valid, and all of them describe experiences that are certainly present in roleplaying games. However, a martial artist and a writer view their arts differently. If a writer tried to explain to a martial artist that his or her art is not valid because it does not follow the conventions of story structure, that writer is going to get punched (or kicked or thrown to the ground). But if the writer appreciates that martial arts are a different but equally valid form of expression, then the two artists may be able to focus on more productive discussions of how to infuse their own artistic mode with elements of the other.

This is also true for gaming. If we can accept that multiple answers are valid, then we can stop worrying about who is "right" and start working on integrating the positive elements of these different viewpoints.

So the next time you think about joining one of these arguments, stop for a moment and consider - what is my lens? How am I viewing the roleplaying experience? We can all certainly agree that it is interactive and participatory. I hope that we can also agree that roleplaying is an art. The only question remaining is - what kind of art is it for you?

-Fairman Rogers


PS - Personally, I view roleplaying like a play (of course). I believe that each player's primary task is to explore a character, and I also believe that it can be helpful to have a director who keeps the big picture in mind. As I reflect on the writing I have done for Steamscapes, I think of myself as the dramaturg - providing you with all of the context you need for your own production.